Masculin féminin
d. Jean-Luc Godard (1966)
The Criterion Collection

Watching a Godard film usually makes me feel bad because I fail to connect to the work of someone who is clearly a major voice and influence in film. Many of my favorite filmmakers cite him as an influence. Many of my film-loving friends love his work and, I believe, have found personal meaning in his films, beyond admiring them as art. I have never found my footing with his work. Yes, some of this is ignorance. I have not taken a deep dive into Godard’s work, though I have watched several of his films, which I believe are among his “major” films: Breathless (1960), Vivre sa vie (1962), Contempt (1963), Pierrot le fou (1965), Week-end (1967), Tout Va Bien (1972), and then I skipped all the way to Goodbye to Language (2014). I like some of these more than others, but, again, I’ve never connected. I’m happy to say that the trend shifted, or maybe I’ve just found an anomaly, in 1966’s Masculin féminin, which just got a nice Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection. That doesn’t mean I entirely “get” Masculin féminin, I appreciated the trip. And it’s quite the trip!

When the film begins we see Jean-Pierre Léaud, on his way to becoming a full fledged star of the French New Wave and a few years older than he was in François Truffaut’s 1959 debut The 400 Blows. Here he plays a young man named Paul (the launching point for this story was a couple of Guy de Maupassant stories, “The Signal” and “Paul’s Mistress,” where the main couple is Paul and Madeleine . . . and Madeleine may be more attracted to some women she knows). When we meet Godard’s Paul, he is sitting in a café, looking kind of anxious and, despite just finishing his mandatory military service, he seems a bit too small for the cigarette he puts to his lips.

Paul is looking for a job. In many ways, he’s just putting his feet out into the world.

At this café Paul meets a young woman named Madeleine, played by real-life pop star Chantal Goya. They strike up a conversation. It turns out Madeleine is also putting her feet out in the world and wants to make a record.

One of the threads (of many threads in the film) I latched onto in this film was the sense of Paul and Madeleine, and other young people we see, stepping into adulthood but with one foot still hovering over youth. And yet this is their world. They are of age and have inherited in fully, even if they don’t fully understand it or their role in it or how they are going to have to get through it together.

Famously, one of this film’s intertitles says, “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” One of the issues I have with the film is Godard’s insistence in portraying the “masculine” as the more serious and political while the “feminine” wavers closer to pop culture and Coca-Cola, but all of the characters are growing up in a world where violence could erupt in the café. And this indeed happens when Paul and Madeleine meet:

There’s a woman with a gun, and there’s the end of the film’s first section. One might think that violent event would carry over into the next section. It does not. The characters move on, continue to have their conversations, where we continue to see they are in transition.

Politics, violence, world events: these are present in the film.

But we get the sense that for these young adults it is all a kind of mishmash. It’s just the world they live in. They want jobs, they want entertainment, they want to become some idealized version of themselves, and they want sex. It’s a messy world, and I think Godard captures is beautifully.

Speaking of beauty, this film is also a lovely look at Paris in the mid-60s.

I’m fascinated by the way Godard made this film. From the supplements, including the nice essay by Adrian Martin, I learned that Godard cast Chantal Goya due to her pop-star status with the contingency that she just be herself. To help make her character feel alive and immediate, he would ask questions and then film her answering. These were then put in the film, rather seamlessly I might add. I thought that was a pretty brilliant way to ensure the characters still possessed a sense of youth that Godard, who was 35, had lost, all while still having them discuss things Godard cared about.

Will I now be able to revisit Godard’s work and connect better? Maybe. I certainly want to try because I really enjoyed this film, and I am feeling a tug where before I felt resistance.

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